New York Times, October 3, 1933
In Which Eugene O'Neill Recaptures the Past in a Comedy with George M. Cohan
By BROOKS ATKINSON
As the writer of
comedy Mr. O’Neill has a capacity for tenderness that most of us
never suspected. “Ah, Wilderness!” with which the Guild opened
its sixteenth season last evening, may not be his most tremendous
play, but it is certainly his most attractive.
How much of it is autobiographical this column is not
prepared to say just now, but obviously it is Mr. O’Neill’s
attempt to recapture past life of which he is fond.
All the characters are beguiling; at least two of them are
admirable and lovable. And
toward them Mr. O’Neill’s point of view is full of compassionate
a Connecticut father of the year 1906, Mr. Cohan gives the ripest
finest performance in his
career, suggesting, as in the case of Mr. O’Neill, that his past
achievements are no touchstone of the qualities he has never
exploited. On the
whole, Mr. O’Neill’s excursion into nostalgic comedy has
resulted in one of his best works.
His sources are closer to life than the tortured characters
of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”
His mood is mature and forgiving.
Now it is possible to sit down informally with Mr. O’Neill
and to like the people of whom he speaks and the gentle, kindly
tolerance of the memories.
a large small-town of Connecticut in 1906 lives an ordinary American
family. They are
typical in their humors and vexations.
They are average fold faced by average problems, and they
have the strength to solve them.
What concerns them most in “Ah, Wilderness!” is the
youthful fervor of Richard, who is a senior in high school and a
rebel. He reads
Swinburne, Shaw, Wild and Omar Khayyam, and his mother worries.
He is an incipient anarchist; he hates capital and his father
looks disturbed. He is
also passionately in love with a neighbor’s girl, and means to
marry her. The scraps break with Richard in good, melodramatic style.
Being young and arrogant, Richard runs amok to spite her, and
gets tight in the presence of a painted lady.
His father and mother are sure that the world has come to an
end. But the damsel
manages to prove her devotion at a moonlit rendezvous on the beach
and Richard is himself again. After
everything has been settled naturally, the father and mother begin
to remember that once they were young.
in brief, is the fact of the story.
But it hardly communicates the warmth of pity that floods
through the play. For undistinguished as the legend may be, Mr. O’Neill has
given it distinction by the fervor of his emotion.
He not only likes these burgher folk, but he understands
them; and particularly in the last act in the scene between the son
and the father he has caught all the love and anguish that such
relationships conceal. The
roistering scene in the back room of a small hotel bar is
commonplace enough. Some
of the domestic scenes are hackneyed, and the progress of “Ah,
Wilderness!” lacks the drive of Mr. O’Neill’s tragic war
hoses. But his
recognition of the tortures of adolescence, and the petty despairs
of small-town life, bring him closer to most of us than any of his
other plays have done.
a writer of comedy he is n gag buffoon.
The lines that draw laughter from the audience cannot be
detached from the play for isolated quotation.
But his attitude toward his characters is lightened with a
sense of humor. Part of
the humor rebounds from the costumes of 1906 – the flat straw
hats, striped flannel trousers, long coats, high collars that the
young blades wear in their frivolities, and the monstrous automobile
garb needed for Fourth of July motoring.
Part of the humor comes from the intellectual timidities that
we persuade ourselves were typical of that day.
Nat Miller falteringly talking sex to his son is one of the
funnies episodes n this fable.
There is an undercurrent of humor in all the dilemmas of the
Miller children and in all the familiar jars of family life in the
sitting-room and over the dinner-table.
But if Mr. O’Neill’s approach to Richard’s torment of
eager, youthful problems is not humorous it is fraught with
humanity, and it is alternately poignant and disarming.
Guild has risen to the occasion nobly.
Mr. Moeller’s direction is supple, alert and sagacious; and
Robert Edmond Jones’s settings recognize the humor in the stuffy
refinement of 1906. As
Nat Miller, the father, Mr. Cohan gives a splendid performance.
Although that adjective is exact, it seems hardly
enthusiastic enough for the ripeness and kindliness and wisdom of
his playing. He is
quizzical in the style to which we are all accustomed from him, but
the jaunty mannerisms and the mugging have disappeared.
For the fact is that “Ah, Wilderness!” has dipped deeper
into Mr. Cohan’s gifts and personal character than any of the
antics he has written for himself.
Ironic as it may sound, it has taken Eugene O’Neill to show
us how fine an actor George M. Cohan is.
As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage. Marjorie Marquis is excellent as a troubled, normal mother. Gene Lockhart is capital as her amiable and bibulous brother. As the spinster who refused his sixteen years ago, Eda Heinemann is also uncommonly good. There are good performances of other parts by William Post Jr., Adelaide Bean, Walter Vonnegut Jr., Ruth Gilbert, Richard Sterling, Johan Wynne and Ruth Holden. And in spite of its dreadful title, “Ah, Wilderness!” is a true and congenial comedy. If Mr. O’Neill can write with as much clarity as this, it is hard to understand why he has held up the grim mask so long.
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